Making the Case for Student Voice
November 19, 2018
Story by Lorenzo Santavicca
I was the Michigan State University student body president during a high-profile crisis and series of resignations. At the time, there was a trend of top institutional leaders losing their jobs in light of the systemic failure of distancing administrators from those not involved in deliberative forums. Shared governance is an important mechanism to engage stakeholders in decisions. However, as is often the case, one key group is missing: students.
At MSU, effective shared governance, inclusive of students, may have made the sexual assault crisis avoidable altogether. For years, young leaders have called for change. The student government, the most formal channel for student voice, was endlessly sounding alarms on issues like campus safety and health and wellness. These issues that became increasingly contentious landmines prior to the 2018 spring semester were institutional failures that led up to the revelations of Larry Nassar’s survivors.
While the crisis underscored the importance of policy solutions, it also signaled to the national higher education community the need for shared governance to include student voice. These lessons should be noted far and wide in the academy in light of the challenges facing leaders. Students are a valuable asset to the governing process of institutions but are not properly listened to. Findings from National Campus Leadership Council’s Student Voice Index indicate student leaders deserve access, tools, and empowerment to improve shared governance at their institution for a better campus.
The Student Voice Index reveals 3 in 4 student government presidents agree they have the opportunity to “raise issues before they get out of hand,” yet barely half feel more than mildly influential in campus decisions. Shared governance with student voice allows for students to raise issues and provide solutions that may inevitably prevent a campus crisis from occurring in the future.
Student leaders deserve support. Only 24% of student presidents reported that they felt
extremely influential in creating change on campus. If some of the most engaged student leaders are not able to find their place at the table that will directly impact them and their peers, administrators can expect low levels of success in the adoption of the cause at hand. However, if institutions can boost the ability of young adults to become stronger influencers on campus through shared governance, we can expect high-achievers to confidently tackle some of today’s greatest challenges post-graduation.
Students are the experts on issues that need to be addressed. Take the subject of relationship violence and sexual misconduct. Students will often raise the issue of how long it takes to process reports through systems on an institutional level. Administrators and faculty leaders should support students in an effort to not only adequately staff these channels of reporting, but also provide resources on how and where to report. On the whole, students generally look for the support and resources from institutional leadership to allow them the opportunity to make a long-term cultural change among their peers.
Student voice takes shape in many forms. When compelling issues on campus confront the student experience, student leaders will put their daily routines aside to do their part to change course. At MSU, this happened through student government meetings, as well as attending a contentious faculty senate meeting for a vote of no-confidence in the Board of Trustees. Overall, when students are treated as partners, there is a greater chance for mindful discussion and clearer approaches that will significantly impact campus in the long haul.
Michigan State University failed to listen and respond appropriately to student voice, to those who were talking about areas that needed urgent change prior to the massive crisis in 2018. If this does not epitomize the problem for preserving the excellence that has defined higher education, I’m not sure what does.
Lorenzo Santavicca is the former undergraduate student body president at Michigan State University who served two terms from 2016-2018. Santavicca was recognized as the 2018 National Student Body President of the Year by the National Campus Leadership Council.
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